I must confess: This has been a sticking point for me in the past.
- I know that God can do anything He chooses, and I know that He loves me and will choose what is best for me.
- He created the universe and gives all life; He can solve my problems and restore health at any time and in any way that He wishes.
- I know that He has a plan for everything and that His way is always best;
- I also know that His plan may not include what I, in my limited perspective, wish would happen.
- I know that He is already aware of what I want and need, and that His plan is already in progress;
- He doesn’t need my permission or request before He can act.
So why ask? Why not just wait and see what He does without my input? Does my prayer influence Him? If so, how? Should I even try?
Here are a few of my answers…..
When we talk with someone close to us, a good friend or loved one, our relationship grows closer. We learn more about one another’s likes and dislikes, our attitudes and outlooks, our thought processes. We get to the point that we can anticipate the other’s reactions, and understand how they interact with our own.
Even if part of the conversation is asking for something, the request comes with an attitude of commonality or shared purpose rather than as a demand. If part of the conversation includes disagreement, there is still a mutual exchange of thoughts within the context of the shared relationship. When on a topic where one person is more knowledgeable or has more authority, the less-qualified person still expresses their opinion and is heard with respect. However, they also defer to the one who is more qualified, and learn from them without insisting on getting their own (less-informed) way.
Since God already knows me inside out, the point of my conversations with Him would be for me to learn to know Him better. Telling Him about my joys and concerns, even though of course He is already aware of them, still enhances my relationship with Him. Asking for answers to problems or healing from illness, even though of course He is already in the process of answering, still gives me a chance to reiterate my trust in Him. And, between the two of us, He is more qualified and has more authority 🙂 so I would do well to defer to Him!
Listening for God’s side of the conversation, His answers and directions, gives me the opportunity to participate in His work: If I pray for someone to stop being hungry, I can take some food to them!
This is how missions and ministries are done. Someone sees a need, prays for God’s guidance in meeting that need, and then goes out and takes action as they feel God is leading them to do. God blesses and multiplies that action so that it becomes much more effective than the individual could have guessed from that one first step taken in prayer and faith. That is a part of what it means for the church to be the “body of Christ“, His hands and feet to share His love with the world.
Note that God’s answers may come via His written Word, a Bible verse that comes to mind. It may be the “still, small voice” or “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12) of His Spirit speaking within me. Or God may use a friend, a song, or any other event, to convey His message to me. Once I start listening, I notice more “God things” that I might otherwise have overlooked.
If anyone had reason to think He didn’t need to pray, you would expect Jesus to be that person. After all, He is God; He would be praying to Himself! You would think that He already knew every step of the plan, since He is the Planner. But He was also fully human, and He often went away to be alone and pray to His Father. What topics was He discussing with God? What was He asking for? We can’t always know for sure, but here are some things we do know:
- His prayer time was a regular occurrence. The scriptures say He “often” went off alone to pray (Luke 5:16).
- He prayed in the midst of busy, exciting times: Matthew 14:13-15:14 and Mark 6:30-7:13 have this sequence:
- The death of His cousin, John the Baptist
- Healing many people
- The miracle of feeding the 5000
- More prayer
- Walking on water
- Healing many more people
- Confronting the Pharisees
- He prayed before difficult choices: choosing his twelve closest disciples (Luke 6:12-16), going to the cross (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46).
- He prayed for others: his disciples in John 17, the witnesses at raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:40-44).
Jesus Taught His Followers to Pray
Pray, then, in this way:Matthew 6:9-13
Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
[For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]
Notice a couple of points about that prayer. It focuses on God first: His name, His will, His kingdom. It asks for “enough”, not for luxury. It asks for forgiveness, with the expectation that we also forgive others. It asks for spiritual guidance and protection, not for “stuff”.
In other places, Jesus says “Ask, and you will receive” (Matthew 21:20-22, Luke 11:9-10, John 16:23-24, 1 John 5:14-15). Obviously I can’t just ask for $1 million and expect it to appear in my bank the next day, though. But Jesus does say to ask for what I want or need. The New Testament writer James reminds his readers that “You do not have because you do not ask.” but also “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” (James 4:1-3).
So, how do I know what I should or should not ask for? Back to conversation with someone close to me, I can get a good idea just by knowing God and his character. In listening to Him, I can feel His nudge bringing a topic to my mind (often referred to as feeling a “burden” to pray for something). That means that even the urge to ask doesn’t start with me: God initiates the conversation and then I join in. That makes effective prayer bigger and more intimate than just a wish list or a litany of complaints (as I am often guilty of doing!).
Instead, effective prayer following Jesus’ model will do a couple of things. It will…
It’s expected that the asking is “in His name” or “according to His will” and “for His glory”. That means not asking for things that I know are contrary to God’s character. What He gives will always show His goodness; He won’t give things that distract from that.
I once read something to the effect that “God is not a vending machine”; I can’t just drop in any old prayer and get back a goodie. Jesus refused to do miracles when the one asking just wanted to see a side show (Luke 23:8-10, Matthew 12:38-40, Mark 8:11-12, Luke 11:16, John 2:18-21, John 6:30). He also met a temptation to show off His power with a stern “…it is written, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.’” (Matthew 4:7).
A second aspect of what Jesus taught is that God can be trusted. Like a good parent, He is pleased to give good things to His children (Luke 11:11-13). But He knows what I really need (Matthew 6:7-8). And again like a good parent, He loves me enough to give what I need instead of simply what I want. 1
That means that the answer may not come immediately, or may be “No”, or may not look at all like I expect. But I can be assured that I will receive the best He has to give. The answer will fit into His overall plan in ways that I may not fully understand this side of Heaven.
The Bible has examples of very specific, very immediate requests being granted. I think of Elijah calling down fire (1 Kings 18:17-39) or of Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6:36-40). These dramatic moments are among many where God validated those speaking for Him. In each case, the demonstration of God’s power pointed to God rather than to the messenger.
In fact, Isaiah 7:10-16 tells of God insisting on giving a specific answer to prayer. King Ahaz of Judah was concerned because other kings were attacking and trying to overthrow him. God told him not to worry, that the attackers would not succeed. He told Ahaz to ask for any sign he wanted, no matter how big, to confirm this promise. When Ahaz would not ask, the prophet Isaiah said “[OK, then (paraphrase)] God Himself will give you a sign”. On that occasion, it was wrong of Ahaz not to ask.
As far as I know, I have not had such occasions in my life so far. But then, I have not been put into a position where there was such a definite decision point that needed for God to act so unmistakably. If that point comes, I trust that God will let me know what to ask for, and when and how to make the request. Until then, I won’t test God by asking Him to do a specific trick on my timing; I’ll trust that He will answer my prayers in His own time and His own way.
God Responds to Our Prayers
I can’t claim to understand exactly how God works when responding to our prayers. Why would He change something that He already has planned just because I ask Him to do so? His plans are obviously better than mine! But the Bible is clear that He does take take our requests into account. One example (that seems especially relevant today) is 2 Chronicles 7:14:
[if] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
The obvious implication is that if God’s people don’t act, then their land will not be healed.
Other examples include Abraham negotiating to try to save Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-33), Jonah’s successful preaching to the Ninevites (Jonah 3), and King Hezekiah being given 15 years of additional life (2 Kings 20:1-11). In these cases, God definitely made a choice between two courses of action, in response to the prayers that He received. That seems to be a facet of the “participation” discussed above; He invites us to be a part of the fulfillment of His plans.
A Lifestyle of Prayer
All of the New Testament writers adopted and encouraged a lifestyle of prayer. They were in constant communication with God, and urged their readers to do likewise:
- “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17);
- “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6);
- “always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all” (Philippians 1:4);
- “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (James 5:16).
Considering that prayer is really conversation with a loving Father who went to great effort to make Himself available to me, perhaps the question is not “Why Pray?”, but “Why NOT Pray?”.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- This overlaps with some of the ideas I explored in the post “Why Bad Things Happen?”